By Boston Woodard
Over the decades, music programs in prison have been part of the rehabilitation process for many men and women throughout California. It all began in the 1940’s when warden Clinton Truman Duffy, who was dubbed “the man who reformed San Quentin,” came on the scene. Warden Duffy, the son of a San Quentin guard, began sweeping changes toward rehabilitation and how prisoners were treated.
Duffy started California’s first prison newspaper, the San Quentin News. He created the first Alcoholics Anonymous program, a boxing program, organized baseball, and began enhanced music and arts programs, allowing the “convicts” to perform at special prison functions.
The William James Association (WJA), an organization that promotes work services in the arts, environment, education, and community development provides a Prison Arts Project (PAP) for prisoners. Through the vision and efforts of Eloise Smith, the WJA began the PAP in 1977 as a pilot program at the California Medical Facility (CMF) prison in Vacaville, California. Since that time, the WJA has dedicated itself to providing arts experiences to incarcerated individuals in the belief that participation in the artistic process significantly and positively affects one’s views of oneself and the world. In 2017, with limited funds, the WJA sends some working artists into a few of California’s 35 state prisons sponsor workshops.
Music is a medium that dictates the mood of a room better than any other. From huge music theaters to tiny clubs and bars, even behind prison walls, music has its place in society. Unlike some other art forms, music demands a particular level of critical thinking and concentration that requires the musician to engage in social sharing and socialization not required in other art activities. That said, using music as a rehabilitation or therapy tool is a powerful treatment approach.
In 2016, inside that California Medical Facility, where it all began with the WJA forty years ago, a new rehabilitation program premised on music, has been created within the institution’s Mental Health Services Department. Dr. Pacheco is a psychologist who plays piano but stopped “many years ago.” He now uses his music ability to help his patients at CMF.
Dr. Pacheco started the “EOP Music Program” (enhanced outpatient) for men housed within the Mental Health Services units at CMF. The idea of the EOP Music Program came about after a suggestion from one of Pacheco’s patients. The basis of the program is to develop social skills they strive with to perform their favorite song.
With literally no music equipment to start the program, small plastic trash containers were turned upside-down and used as drums. Tightly wound newspapers bound with Scotch tape were used as drumsticks. In an old storage container located out back of the prison, Dr. Pacheco was able to salvage a few old drums (from an old program) stored several years ago, destined for the dump. Drumskins (heads) on the drums were worn out but usable.
One musician said he hopes “the old drum set will hold up for awhile.” Another staff member donated a small keyboard to the program. “Not much to start with,” said Dr. Pacheco, “but it was a real start.”
Dr. Pacheco was able to gain approval from the prison’s administration to purchase 25 hundred dollar bills worth of equipment, i.e. a small mixing board, two small (monitor) speakers, and a few assorted accessory items such as shakers, tambourines, bongos, triangles, etc. A few dollars of the funds he acquired to fix the drums well enough for the men to play and learn on. The group still needs an electric guitar, bass, and a couple of amplifiers to complete the band’s basic needs.
To help with coordinating the program, Dr. Pacheco enlisted inmate René Medina, a general population inmate musician (not part of the mental health program), to assist him in putting together a syllabus for the program. Medina has been playing music since the age of eight when he listened to cassette tapes and learned to play by ear. After coming to prison in 1991at the age of 18, Medina honed his music skills to the point where today he can play twelve instruments.
Inmate Balagoom, a percussionist in the program, smiled widely saying, “I think Dr. Pacheco is a great music facilitator. He makes us feel comfortable like we all share an equal part of what’s going on in the program. Balagoom, a deeply spiritual man feels, “[the program] is a necessary activity for me personally—I love music and the atmosphere Dr. Pacheco creates for us is a God-send.”
With Dr. Pacheco on keyboard and Medina on acoustic guitar, some accessory equipment, and a workable drum kit, the EOP Music Program became a reality. There are currently 20 men in the program. The music/skill levels of the patients are from neophyte to professional.
Dyke, one of the singers, touts the music program for the therapeutic aspects of it. “The music program with Dr. Pacheco and René allows me the opportunity to reach into my inner-self through my singing,” he explained. “Dr. Pacheco sees the potential in each one of us and crafts an opportunity for us to showcase what we can accomplish with music.” Dyke said being in the EOP Music Program has helped him immensely with depression he has been dealing with.
A noticeable void in the group is the lack of singers. “It takes courage,” said Dr. Pacheco for someone to get up in front, put them self out there and sing to an audience. “Music challenges self-confidence and one of our goals is to encourage participants to feel comfortable while in the program,” said Pacheco.
An example of the power of the music and the positive effect it’s having on one of the participants is 63-year-old Jesus, one of the first men in the program. Jesus wears a safety helmet to prevent injuries he may incur during seizures. But this does not hold him back. “I love music. I love to contribute what I can. I really like the guys in the program. I interact with them really well,” said Jesus. “I never sang in front of people before. Dr. Pacheco and René helped me when I wrote my original song. I look forward every week to sing in the group.”
“Cooperation is important,” said Medina. “We guide patients through the process of getting a song together then playing it as a unit. They are encouraged to listen to each other, how to blend music and pay attention to the tempo,” explained Medina.
“Getting in the groove (timing, working in unison with other musicians), is a big part of what’s taught during the sessions. The music should take on a life of its own,” added Dr. Pacheco.
One of the drummers in the group, Sergio said, “Man, I absolutely look forward to every Friday so I can play the drums for the EOP Music Program. What I really like is the calm atmosphere you don’t usually see in a prison music program. There’s no arguing, showboating or favoritism. Dr. Pacheco’s program is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Sergio proudly.
According to Dr. Pacheco, “I also believe that music can be political as well as rehabilitative.” He intentionally includes various genres of music into the EOP Music Program sessions, such as Motown, Country & Western, Blues, Rock & Roll, Latin, and others. While going through the process of learning or playing a new song, Pacheco and Medina encourage the musicians to think, listen, and learn not only music but the meaning of the song as well.
A mantra encouraged by Dr. Pacheco during sessions is; “No one is perfect, just do the best you can.” He reminds everyone that working together in the program is not unlike facing a parole board panel where “you should take a deep breath, relax, stay focused and do the best you can.”
The level of participation and cooperation during Dr. Pacheco’s rehearsals is exciting to see. The camaraderie and friendship in the EOP Music Program are impressive. These guys love what they are doing. Each man gets the opportunity to showcase his talent and is encouraged with congratulatory praise and applause. Dr. Pacheco’s knowledge of music, program leadership, impartiality and his all-inclusive policy are vital qualities in a prison setting. He has created an atmosphere conducive to rehabilitation that is praiseworthy, to say the least.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist who has contributed to Community Alliance since 2005. He is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System (Amazon). Woodard facilitates a Creative Writing Guild he established for incarcerated writers.